Last Updated on July 31, 2021
PLOT: The true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the slums of Uganda, who becomes a master chess player under the guidance of her coach (David Oyelowo), while her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) struggles to find the bare necessities the family needs to survive.
REVIEW: As far as movies about chess go, QUEEN OF KATWE is definitely up there with something like SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER. Telling an inspiring true story, Mina Nair’s film will no doubt rack-up critical accolades and find a receptive audience – something not hurt by the Disney marketing muscle back the film up. Considering their industry dominance with Marvel and Lucasfilm, it’s appropriate that the “House of Mouse” invest in smaller-scaled movie like this, which will no doubt open the eyes of younger audience members to a kind of existence they can’t fathom.
Through it all, QUEEN OF KATWE is an entertaining film, and most certainly about more that “just chess.” Young Madina Nalwanga shows some real big-screen chops as our young heroine, charting her beginnings as an illiterate pre-teen selling corn on the streets of Katwe with her mom, to the confident, world-class teenaged chess champion she becomes. Like everyone else in the movie, Nalwanga’s performance feels authentic and naturalistic, making her an easy character to identify with, and someone to root for.
Lupita Nyong’o fares just as well as her young mother. With a dead husband and four kids to raise, she’s shown to be strict but loving, doing her best to keep the kids fed and sheltered, even if this is seemingly impossible to do without resorting to more illicit ways of making money. Beautiful and a force to be reckoned with, it’s Nyong’o best role, by far, since her award-winning turn in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and a reminder that Hollywood needs to find more decent vehicles for her.
QUEEN OF KATWE also provides David Oyelowo (SELMA) with another solid turn, playing an engineer forced to accept a low-paying part-time job as a coach for an outreach ministry, only to discover it’s his calling. A wholly positive, but still human figure, Oyelowo is at his best here. One can see why casting directors are so high on him.
Indian-American director Mina Nair also does really good work with what might seem like a departure for her, following more politically motivated works like THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, or finely coiffed historical yarns like AMELIA. This is her best film in quite some time, and her style is dynamic throughout, keeping the camera moving during the chess games, and helping give the film a rich look despite a small(ish) budget. Alex Heffes’s score is also really good – with him having scored another (far darker) Ugandan tale, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. If there are any complaints to be made, it’s that at over two hours QUEEN OF KATWE feels a shade too long, and a good ten-to-fifteen minutes could have been shaved-off just to keep the pace a little quicker, especially if the intent is to reach younger audiences.
While maybe a tough sale theatrically, QUEEN OF KATWE is a strong slice-of-life. It’s packed with good performances, and tells a good yarn. It might be a little small to generate big ticket sales, but once it hits streaming I could see this becoming a family favorite and it’s a strong, educational film that’s perfect for young viewers. I highly recommend it.